Ode to Rocky

A nostalgic post, reposted. Nostalgically.

Analyzing 30 years of data detailing a large rabies virus outbreak among North American raccoons, researchers at Emory University have revealed how initial demographic, ecological and genetic processes simultaneously shaped the virus?s geographic spread over time. The study appears online in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences.

That?s the start of an interesting report on Science Daily.

And it reminds me of living through the Great Rabid Raccoon Outbreak in Massachusetts about 15 years back. (Not to be confused with this rabies outbreak.)

It was actually an outbreak that started in Arkansas and spread across the eastern seaboard. A couple of crackers who had hunted all the ?coons out of their bit of forest traveled out to the Sonoran Desert and caught themselves a couple of the critters, brought them back home, and released them to replenish the supply. Naturally. What else would you do if your supply of Easter Sunday Dinner meat had tanked?

WARNING: Never do what these two guys did.

The raccoons they brought back had rabies and spread it to local raccoons, and they spread it to others, and so on. I remember living in Boston and hearing about the rabies moving across my homeland of New York State. I heard the predictions that it would take a year or two to cross the Hudson River. They crossed the Hudson River without even noticing it was there. I guess they knew about bridges. But then the predictions were made that it would take them at least a year to cross the Connecticut River. They crossed the Connecticut like it wasn?t there. I guess they must have remembered about bridges.

When they hit the Boston area, all hell broke out. I remember a story of a trucker driving his semi rig through town, right on Mass Ave in Cambridge. Summer, the windows were open. A rabid raccoon ran at his truck and climbed into the passenger window to get him. He jumped out and eventually had to climb on top of his truck to get away. A 12 year old girl was trapped by rabid raccoons on her front porch. And so on. It was like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers but real. And without the pods.

Then one day four of us, two couples who did a lot of stuff together, worked out the logistics of getting one car upstream and one car down stream, the two canoes upstream, keeping track of the beer and munchies, etc., for a small leisurely flotilla down the Charles River.

The Charles River is the big giant river you see in front of the Boston Skyline in many Boston-based television shows and in movies like Love Story. It?s actually a pitiful small river but there is a dam in Boston that backs it up into a substantial basin. We were way up river where it is tens of feet wide and has a moderate current.

So there we were, floating leisurely down the river, passing through the town of Concord (where the Shot That Was Heard Around The World was fired, home of the American Revolution, etc.) We were floating through a rather nice neighborhood with large centuries old houses with yards treed with centuries old oaks, occupied by centuries old families incapable of pronouncing the letter ?r? except where it does not belong. (?I have an idee-er .. pak the cah in Sommahville and walk to the Chaahls.?)

Suddenly, we noticed a raccoon on the right bank, near the water line, huddled in a hollow below a large oak. It looked young, scared, and innocent. It was not foaming at the mouth, but the very fact that we could see it indicated something strange was going on. Normally, as you know, they are nocturnal, and it was definitely not night time. But it was not acting in any way rabid.

We put the breaks on the canoes and settled into a backwater across the river to watch the animal for a moment. Just then we could see hats. About six or seven hats appeared just at the edge of our line of sight, on the wooded horizon, distributed on either side of a white clapboard home. A couple of the hats were smoky-the-bear hats, one brown one blue, and the rest were police-man hats. As they got closer, bobbing up and down, we could see the heads and eventually the torsos of representatives of most, if not all, of the areas law enforcement agencies. A state trooper (blue smoky the bear) a state conservation officer (brown smoky the bear), the Concord Police, a county sheriff deputy, and others, batons in one hand, communicating devices in the other, approached the bank cautiously.

The raccoon seemed to know they were coming. In fact, it is likely that the small creature had been chased by them to its present hiding place. I began to reconsider it?s behavior. Perhaps it has been spooked out of some hiding place, a centuries old wood shed perhaps, and for all I knew, this could have been the last non-rabid raccoon in the Commonwealth.

What happened next? Well, I lied to you above. The canoes didn?t really have breaks. And the backwater was not too strong. So we were swept, in slow motion, away from the scene just as the Law Enforcement Community was reaching the bank. I considered pointing to the raccoon and yelling ?There ? there?s the bastard, right there, beneath that tree! Get him! Get him!?

But I remained silent. Later, it became clear that we were all thinking the same thing ? unsure as to whether to narc on the raccoon or let the police and the raccoon go head to head in a fair fight. It really did not look rabid to any of us.

I don?t know what happened to Rocky (as I came to think of him). Most likely, the trooper and the sheriff deputy held him down while the conservation officer cut out his brain to test for rabies (the only valid test, I?m afraid).

But sometimes I like to remember Rocky as a sort of hero. He escaped by jumping into the river and swimming to safety, founding a new colony of rabid free raccoons in Nova Scotia. Or perhaps even Quebec.

But then, I suppose, there would be Mounties?

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